The Book Drop

Dueling Dystopias

by Jon Michaud

“Those who cannot imagine the speculative future may be condemned to enact it,” wrote Rebecca Mead on The New Yorker’s web site recently in a piece accompanying her profile of Margaret Atwood for the magazine. Mead was referring to Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (newly adapted for the screen on Hulu) and George Orwell’s 1984, both of which have returned to the best-seller lists in the months since the election.


It’s a heyday for dystopian speculative fiction and for the fears and anxieties behind those fictions. Two novels published this spring offer diverging but equally dark visions of life on (and off) Earth in the near future. The first of these is Omar El Akkad’s American War, released in March by Knopf. El Akkad’s novel is set at the end of the twenty-first century and imagines a United States consumed by a second Civil War. In this case, the Free Southern States secede not to defend the right to own slaves, but because of their refusal to give up fossil fuels.


In El Akkad’s imaging, climate change is no longer debated; it has become irrefutable reality. Florida and Long Island are submerged in the Atlantic; the Mississippi Delta has become a sea, and the nation’s capital has been moved inland, to Columbus, Ohio. The Earth has been transformed geopolitically as well. After a number of failed “springs,” the Muslim Middle East has cast off its authoritarian rulers and coalesced into the Bouazizi Empire which is the world’s dominant superpower, sending aid to the war-torn United States under the auspices of the Red Crescent.


The central figure of Akkad’s novel is Sarat Chestnut, who, as a child, is forced to flee her Louisiana home with her family, taking up residence in a refugee camp in northern Mississippi. The camp houses Southern citizens displaced by the fighting and the ecological catastrophe. Tall, strong, and fearless, Sarat comes under the sway of a powerful and mysterious figure named Albert Gaines, who grooms her into a freedom fighter—or a terrorist, depending on your point of view. When members of Sarat’s family are killed and wounded during an assault on the camp by the Blues—as the Northern forces are known—Sarat commits the remainder of her life to avenging the losses. She becomes a nihilistic super-warrior. As El Akkad notes, “there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early.”


The strongest moments in American War are those in which the toll of conflict on individuals, families, and societies is poignantly dramatized. Sarat’s brother, severely wounded in the attack on the camp, becomes something of a celebrity; war widows make pilgrimages to visit him. Another of El Akkad’s achievements is to challenge the reader’s assumption that U.S. supremacy and stability will endure. It’s disquieting for an American reader to contemplate the possibility that the balance of power between the East and West might one day change and that the United States might become as violently unstable as the Middle East.


If the novel has a shortcoming it's that its narrative adheres too slavishly to this idea of historical inversion. Sarat’s radicalization follows exactly the recruiting pattern of jihadis whose families have been killed by drone strikes. This narrowness of El Akkad’s imagined future also results in some curious omissions. The question of race, which was at the heart of the first War Between the States, is barely mentioned here. Likewise, the thorny matter of how Israel responded to the rise of the Bouazizi Empire is never dealt with. Eliminating such issues and focusing on Sarat’s drive for vengeance makes El Akkad’s novel efficiently single-minded and dramatic, but it also makes this dystopian future a little less persuasive than it might have been.


While American War draws on current news for its inspiration, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, published earlier this month by Harper, takes as its source the legend of Joan of Arc. The state of affairs in The Book of Joan is not so different than the one imagined by El Akkad. The Earth is all but used up, ravaged by climate change, war and the exploitations of late-stage capitalism. A select group of privileged individuals have fled the Earth to an orbiting space station called CIEL (one disgruntled inhabitant dubs it an “idiotic space condom.”)


CIEL was the brainchild of the autocratic Jean de Men, who is described as “some strange combination of a military dictator and a spiritual charlatan. A war-hungry mountebank.” De Men’s antagonist is a girl from France named Joan of Dirt who is able to tap into and direct the Earth’s natural resources. She becomes the leader of the resistance to de Men, who captures her and then stages her execution. Joan survives the execution and disappears underground, both literally and figuratively.


Though Yuknavitch’s depiction of life on the desiccated remains of the Earth is of a piece with numerous familiar post-apocalyptic visions, her imagining of life on CIEL is horrifyingly peculiar and thorough. Aboard the space station, humans have become pale, asexual blobs of flesh. Skin grafts and body-writing have replaced clothing. The narrator of much of the novel Christine Pizan, earned her place aboard CIEL through her expertise in these endeavors and we soon understand that the book we are reading is the story of Joan that she has burned into her own flesh.


At 49, Christine is entering her final year of life. (Nobody on CIEL is allowed to live past 50.) The writing of Joan’s story is a parting act of dissent for her. No sooner does she embark on it then she discovers that her closest friend on CIEL, Trinculo Forsythe, the engineer who constructed the space station, is to be executed for resisting Jean de Men’s authoritarian rule. The two narratives—the spectacle of Trinculo’s execution and the return of Joan from hiding—build toward a violent climactic scene.


Both American War and The Book of Joan conclude with cataclysmic events, but they offer differing visions of the outcomes of those cataclysms and also represent different ways of writing about a dystopian future. El Akkad’s novel is written in a plainspoken, direct style and is narratively conventional. The telling of Sarat’s story advances in linear fashion and is periodically broken up by excerpts from history books and official documents that help the reader understand the way the world has changed.

By contrast, The Book of Joan is not overly interested in exposition. Yuknavitch uses a non-chronological, multiple-point-of-view narration, switching between first and third-person. Her writing is dynamic, veering from lyrical to unadorned. That dynamism helps carry the novel’s strangeness. At its heart, The Book of Joan is a love story. From destruction comes renewal and transformation, Yuknavitch seems to be saying. El Akkad’s vision is bleaker. There is no redemption for Sarat beyond the pain she can exact from her enemies. That may strike some readers as more realistic, but it is also harder for me to swallow. To return to Rebecca Mead’s observation, now that these two dystopias have been imagined, I hope that neither will come to pass.







The Book Drop is a monthly column of thoughts, trends, and tidings from the desk of our librarian, Jon Michaud. 


Jon Michaud is the author of the novel When Tito Loved Clara, named a best book of 2011 by the Barnes & Noble Review. He was Head Librarian at The New Yorker from 2003 to 2012. Prior to that, he worked in libraries at Time Inc. and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A regular contributor to The New Yorker’s Page-Turner and Culture Desk blogs, Jon also reviews books for The Washington Post. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with his wife and two sons where he is at work on a new novel.


You can find him on twitter @jonmichaud



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Buy American War

Buy The Book of Joan